Sicily with Montenegro, Croatia, Albania & Greece

Published on Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Friday, September 2, 2011 - Palermo, Sicily, Italy: Welcome to Sicily, “Island of the Sun” and true to its name—the weather was glorious. Upon arrival at our hotel, many of us immediately set off to investigate the area. When we gathered to meet our fellow travelers and expedition staff, there was much comparing of the closest sources of gelato and cappuccino. After a briefing of tomorrow’s exploration and the first of many wonderful meals to come, most of us headed off to address the effects of jet lag.

Saturday, September 3 - Palermo / Embark Clipper Odyssey: We made a lingering departure from Palermo admiring in passing such landmarks as the Quattro Canti, the intersection with statues reflecting the four seasons, historical figures, and the four patron saints of the city, and Fontana Pretoria, the large fountain near City Hall. Arriving at the cathedral, we admired the Arab-Norman architecture that characterizes much of Sicily. Entering the Capella Palatina, a 12th-century royal chapel, was like walking into a jewel box. Virtually every inch is inlaid with mosaic—the floors were colored marble, the walls were covered with jewel-toned Biblical and historical scenes, and the wooden ceiling was carved and painted in Arabic fashion.

Leaving the city we climbed into the hills and reached Monreale, with its large central cathedral and cloister. The opulence is breathtaking with mosaic images in three tiers on a shimmering gold background. The cloister’s garden is surrounded by 216 paired columns, inlaid with mosaic and semi-precious stones, no two alike. Lunch was served overlooking the Conca d’Oro valley dropping back toward Palermo and the sea.

We then split into groups, with some setting out to explore the archaeological site of Segesta, its theater perched on Monte Barbaro, and a spectacular vista with a very well preserved Doric temple. The other group proceeded to the medieval town of Èrice atop Mount Eryx. We toured the town’s decoratively cobbled streets and plazas, savoring some of the sweets and pastries for which it is justly famous—especially the cannoli!

Arriving on the coast we rejoined our friends on board our home away from home, the Clipper Odyssey. Cocktails and dinner provided an opportunity to compare notes on our respective adventures and soon we were steaming toward Mazara del Vallo.

Sunday, September 4 - Mazara del Vallo / Selinunte / Marsala: This morning we all set off for Selinunte, a wealthy and powerful burgeoning Greek colony of more than 100,000 inhabitants in the 5th and 6th centuries BC, now one of the largest archaeological parks in the world. We explored Temple G, partially in ruins due to an earthquake in the Middle Ages, and partially restored, resembling a giant child’s building blocks. Meandering through the sea squill and oleander flowering everywhere, we reached the Acropolis where we saw the remains of sacred mosaics, as well as more worldly luxuries like terracotta bathtubs.

Returning to the ship, which repositioned to Marsala during lunch, we appreciated more modern luxuries like air conditioning and had to make difficult choices between the options available for the afternoon. Some of us decided to take a local boat to the Phoenician site of Mòzia on the small island of San Pantaleo, connected to the mainland by a submerged causeway used into the 1960s. Those of us opting for a town tour made our way first to the salt flats to photograph the picturesque windmills used to grind the caked salt and also to pump water into salt pans via an Archimedean screw, and to purchase some of the famed Tràpani salt. Heading into Marsala, we stopped first at the archaeological museum to view the remains of the only known Punic war ship. The ship was recovered from the Stagnone Lagoon and is now housed in a former winery. Proceeding through the Garibaldi Gate, we walked to the main square and had time to view the cathedral, sample more delicious gelato, and shop for other local delicacies such as salt, capers, pistachios, and almond products, or enjoy a coffee. We soon continued on to the Cantina Florio winery where we were provided with a tour, history, and explanation about the production of the eponymous wine, before we were presented with a semi-dry Marsala to taste, as well as a light summer white and a wide variety of savory and sweet foods typical of Sicily (of course including more incredible cannoli!). We were joined for the tasting by our friends returning from Mòzia and we all had a chance to shop at the enoteca; before we knew it we were back on board and steaming toward Licata.

Monday, September 5 - Agrigento / Licata: Before setting off on today’s explorations, we enjoyed a lecture on the Greek Temples of Sicily from Allan Langdale that both put into perspective the sites we had visited to date, and thoroughly prepared us for the archaeological banquet that is Agrigento. En route we enjoyed the late summer Sicilian landscape and arrived for lunch at the Fuedo Principi di Butera wine estate for their first day of crushing. After a buffet luncheon of more traditional Sicilian fare (and need I add cannoli!), we had a short tour of the winery, where the steel tanks and crushing screws contrasted with the enormous wooden bins and barrels of the previous day. In addition to a variety of wines, this estate also produces a superior olive oil many of us were unable to resist.

Leaving the wine estate, we drove to Agrigento to begin our exploration. We determined the best way to view the Valley of the Temples was to start with the Temple of Hera at the top and work our way down stopping at the Temples of Concord, Hercules, and Olympian Zeus, respectively. The honey-colored temples are largely intact and are impressive in size, scale, and number. In addition to the temples there are remnants of the massive city wall, so thick that it contains rock cut tombs. As we wandered through the site, Sardinian warblers flitted through the olive trees and around the ruins while European bee-eaters and common buzzards rode in thermals overhead. Before returning to the ship, which had repositioned to meet us at Puerto Empedocle, we divided once again. Some of us opted to explore modern Agrigento, while others chose a little extra time aboard to prepare for the captain’s welcome cocktail reception hosted by Captain Alan McCarty, and the official welcome dinner.

Tuesday, September 6 - Syracuse / Ortigia: Our first stop was at the Catacombs of St. John, where thousands of tombs were cut into the rock of a former aquifer. The nearby museum, the Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi, houses the only sarcophagus recovered intact and unlooted from the catacombs, as well as an excellent collection of artifacts through time from the region. We made our way to the Parco Archeologio Della Neapolis, and its concentration of impressive ruins, including an enormous Greek theater, still used today, and a Roman amphitheatre. We also saw the huge sacrificial altar capable of holding many hundred oxen sacrificed at once, and the extensive quarries, called latomia, that served as forced labor sites for prisoners. The most famous of these is the Ear of Dionysius, which has an exceptional double echo.

Some of us decided to stay ashore and sample the local restaurants or do a bit of shopping. To take a break from the heat of the day, Ron Wixman provided us with valuable insights through his lecture, Sicily in Cultural Geographical Perspective and our indefatigable expedition leader Lia Oprea briefed us on possibilities for the remainder of the day.

The island of Ortigia was the original Greek settlement and is an eminently walkable town; with a refreshing breeze, we began our walking tour. This took us to the freshwater spring adjacent to the harbor, the Fontana Aretusa, and the Piazza Del Duomo where we were able to see the cathedral that only thinly disguises the former Temple of Athena which first occupied the site. As luck would have it there was a rare Caravaggio on special exhibit nearby the Martyrdom of St. Lucy, who is the patron saint of the city, and we seized the opportunity to view this. Continuing into the heart of the island we reached the Piazza Archimede, with its 19th-century fountain featuring the goddess Artemis and surrounded by what were once private palazzos. We ended our tour at the beginning of the island, where the remains of the Doric Temple of Apollo were erected in the 6th century bc. From here some of us returned to the ship, while others decided to continue walking, shopping, or dining ashore until it was time to weigh anchor once again. Those of us who attended the evening recap had the opportunity to try the salted tuna roe called bottarga, prepared for us in a local manner by one of the shopkeepers of Ortigia.

Wednesday, September 7 - At Sea: A day at sea gave most of us a lazy morning, some intrepid souls were up and exercising with John Yersin in his Stretch and Groan program. Susan Langley outlined the background and current state of underwater archaeology in Sicily and the Adriatic and Jonathan Rossouw described the natural history of the Mediterranean. A briefing from Lia filled us in on the exciting possibilities for tomorrow’s visit to Montenegro.

Later we enjoyed an old-fashioned ice cream social, and those on deck saw many Cory's and Yelkouan shearwaters gathered behind fishing boats pulling in their nets, as we rounded the boot of Italy. We joined Ron to learn more about village life and culture in the Balkans, and Allan provided valuable tips for turning our photos into works of art.

Thursday, September 8 - Kotor, Montenegro: As we sailed into the narrow opening of the Bay of Kotor, many of us came on deck to view the two adjacent islands on which are situated, respectively, the Benedictine Monastery of St. George and the Lady of the Rocks church complex. Some of us traveled to the nearby town of Perast to catch a local boat and visit the latter, which also contains a museum of intricately decorated vestments.

Those of us touring Kotor entered through the Venetian Sea Gate and wound our way through the labyrinth of narrow streets punctuated by courtyards and squares boasting churches, museums, cafés, and shops. We visited the maritime museum, housed in an 18th-century palace, and St. Tryphon’s Cathedral with its gilded silver altar screen. While many of us enjoyed exploring the seafood cafés of Kotor, the more energetic among us ascended the 1,350 steps to the town’s fortifications looming 3,937 feet above. Not only were we rewarded with a splendid view of the town, bay, and surrounding mountains, but also with the sight of huge flocks of alpine chough wheeling around the fortress, as well as a Hermann’s tortoise along the trail up to the fort.

Convening back aboard the Clipper Odyssey, we enjoyed a poolside barbecue before Allan’s lecture on Basilicas, Baptistries, and Butrint. Arriving in Croatia, Zegrahm hosted a colorful cocktail party poolside accompanied by a glorious sunset as we docked at Dubrovnik’s main port of Gruz. Those keen on an early start were able to dine ashore and visit the Old Town by night.

Friday, September 9 - Dubrovnik, Croatia / Cavtat: We began our morning at an overlook for a classic view of this 1,300-year-old town, then returned to enter this popular destination through the Pile Gate. We started our walking tour at the iconic circular Onofrio Fountain and visited the Franciscan Monastery, one of the world’s oldest functioning pharmacies which opened its doors in 1391, and the Dominican Monastery with its treasure trove of 15th and 16th century paintings. A popular Titian painting led a few of us to the Cathedral of Assumption of the Virgin, while some of us couldn’t resist the allure of the maritime museum perched high in the walls between the Old Port and the Sea. Others were tempted onto the walls to enjoy a view over the city as well as peeps into the yards and lives of its residents and stunning seaward vistas. From the Pile Gate, the Old Port is the halfway point and while a few intrepid souls chose to complete the circuit, most of us descended to such earthly delights as the darkest chocolate gelato in the world, shops boasting Croatian specialties, and portside cafés with refreshing libations.

The Clipper Odyssey repositioned off the Old Port in the lee of Lokrum Island, providing a wonderful view of Dubrovnik. This move enabled a plethora of options—staying in town, spending the afternoon at a local beach, or heading into the countryside. We stopped first at the town of Cavtat where we explored small artisan’s shops, lolled in seaside cafés enjoying the quiet and onshore breeze, or walked the trail around the peninsula ending up by the small fishing harbor. From here we headed inland through the Konavle region, and arrived at a restored grist mill. We were greeted with an assortment of local brandies including cherry and walnut, and cider, as well as candied orange peel, almonds, and delicious chewy figs. After a demonstration of the mill mechanisms, we followed the millstream upward to a pavilion where local bread, cheese, and ham awaited us with olives, pickles, and local wines. Some of us wandered farther upstream, noting grey wagtails in the woods.

Returning to our ship for tomorrow’s briefing, many of us were determined to dine in Dubrovnik under a nearly full moon, an experience described by several as “magical.” A final chance for a rich gelato treat before catching the last of the Zodiacs and watching the lights of the town fade as we turned south to Albania.

Saturday, September 10 - Durres, Albania / Tirana / Kruja: Another sun-washed morning welcomed us to Albania and we divided to follow our respective interests. Some of us remained in the port city of Durres to tour the large 2nd-century ad amphitheatre capable of seating 15,000 spectators, a small Byzantine chapel with well-preserved mosaics, and the archaeological museum with its impressive collection of Hellenistic and Roman artifacts. Those of us in a more urban frame of mind headed inland to the capital city of Tirana. Efforts to overcome its Communist legacy and subsequent economic woes have resulted in unimaginative architectural blocks enlivened with peculiar color schemes, but the people are unswervingly cheerful, optimistic, and very upfront about their history. The national museum still sports a Communist-era mosaic over its front entry, but the exhibits include interesting and candid views of recent history.

All tours convened at the nearby Sarajet Restaurant where we were greeted by traditionally garbed dancers and musicians. Proceeding upstairs we enjoyed a bountiful buffet of local dishes, beer, and wine and afterward, another demonstration of Albania’s folkdances and music.

Winding upward into the mountains, we approached the hometown and stronghold of Albania’s national hero Skanderbeg Kruje. Gjergj Kastrioti was an Albanian prince given to the Turks as a hostage who distinguished himself militarily and was dubbed Iskander (Alexander). The museum dedicated to him rises from within the castle walls, more a shrine than actual museum. Immediately adjacent to it is an endearing ethnographic museum that portrays the early 19th century self-sufficient farmstead of an affluent Ottoman family, and includes beehives, an olive press, felting mill, iron forge, and ceramic kiln below as well as comfortable upper quarters featuring a small hammam (bath). The usual way to approach the castle is through what we called the bizarre bazaar—a treacherously cobbled street lined with shops selling everything from modern souvenirs to quality local goods. We returned to the ship for recap and dinner.

Sunday, September 11 - Butrint / Saranda: Today Lia and cruise director Lynne Greig were able to pull off a miracle; we were the first group to be allowed to use Zodiacs to venture the mile and a half up the Vivari Channel to approach the ancient city of Butrint!  As we entered the channel we were greeted by little egrets and grey herons roosting atop the ruined fortifications of the 18th-century ruler, Ali Pasha.

Landing at Butrint, opposite another of Ali Pasha’s forts, we entered the park by passing a Venetian watchtower. We wound our way through the small Greek theater, past the public bath complex to the early Christian baptistery with its extensive mosaics, and to the large basilica where we were able to see uncovered a small area of the mosaic floor. The colorful Eurasian jay was common and conspicuous flitting around the ruins. Viewpoints allowed us to overlook Lake Butrint and modern aquaculture pens before we reached the summit and spent time in the small museum.

Passing through the town, a few of us found the beaches too alluring to miss, while the rest continued up the mountain to Lekuresi Castle. The castle was built by the Sultan Suleymani in the 15th-16th centuries as part of his campaign to conquer Corfu, visible across a channel only 2 miles wide. We also had an opportunity to examine some of the mushroom-shaped concrete bunkers that dot the countryside. Within its walls we enjoyed the courtyard garden where we found the hummingbird hawk-moth hovering around the flowers and were greeted indoors with regional snacks and a duet providing local and classical music.

Winding our way back down the hairpin turns to Saranda, some of us chose to walk through town or head to the beach while the rest caught Zodiacs back to the Clipper Odyssey for a poolside barbecue. Turning our bow toward Greece, we assembled in the lounge to learn about upcoming expeditions and the future positioning of the ship over the next few years. We finished the day with Ron explaining the complex geopolitics of the Balkans and retired knowing we would awaken near the center of the world as the Greeks knew it.

Monday, September 12 - Itea, Greece / Delphi: Docking in Itea we found ourselves replicating a millennia-old activity as this town has always served as the port for Delphi. Climbing inland into the mountains we could look back into a valley that resembled an undulating sea of olive trees. Arriving at Delphi on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, some of us began in the new museum while others started first at the archaeological site proper. Both are breathtaking; the museum contains significant statues and artifacts immediately recognizable from documentaries and art books, while the site boasts equally famous architectural wonders.

We approached the Temple of Apollo where the renowned Oracle of Pythia sat, climbing the Sacred Way past the ruins of donated treasuries and remains of votive statuary on which rock nuthatches perched proclaiming their territory. Some of us paused there while others continued to the top of the adjacent theater to experience its excellent acoustics and the truly hardy climbed even higher to the stadium at the top of the complex.

With appetites whetted from the morning’s explorations, we enjoyed a typical Greek lunch in the modern town of Delphi on the balconies of a taverna overlooking the picturesque valley below as red-rumped swallows wheeled above. Thus fortified, we ventured on to the Byzantine monastery of Hosios Loukas (St. Luke). No longer an active monastery, the two churches still house the remains of the venerated hermit. The complex containing the older Church of the Theotokos and the newer, larger octagonal cathedral church, or Katholikon, is also a UNESCO World Heritage site for its important middle-Byzantine architecture and art. Leaving its warm red stone walls we had the opportunity to buy locally produced soaps, olive oil, brandy, and thyme honey gathered from the churches’ hives.

Returning to the ship we prepared to join Captain Alan McCarty for cocktails and the captain’s farewell dinner. After dinner we were treated to a fantastic slide presentation by Giovanna Fasanelli, who had spent her days busily photo-documenting our expedition. As always, it charmed and delighted everyone, and made it a little easier to think about setting the alarm earlier than usual to view our passage through the Corinth Canal tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 13 - Corinth Canal / Athens: With the pilot aboard we started our passage through the Corinth Canal leaving the Gulf of Corinth and heading for the Sardonic Gulf through a canal that is as narrow as 80 feet in some places. The walls rose steeply above us to more than 282 feet, and where bridges crossed we were greeted with shouts and waves from well-wishers. Startled red foxes scampered along the side-slopes and scuttled under bushes, while flocks of western jackdaws and the occasional common kestrel soared overhead. In about an hour we were through and en route to the port of Piraeus.

We joined our expedition staff for a final recap and briefing from Lia regarding Athens and travel home tomorrow. This was followed by a lecture from Susan about beekeeping in the areas we had traversed, topping it off with a tasting of 8 different honeys from Sicily and the Adriatic. Despite the pre-prandial sweets, we enjoyed luncheon aboard before departing to visit Athens for the afternoon.

The sun-drenched Acropolis, one of the iconic ancient sites of the Western world, was as impressive as expected, despite ongoing long-term restoration and preservation efforts, and the breeze at the top was much appreciated after negotiating the very smooth marble steps. A delightful surprise was the new Acropolis Museum, which houses all artifacts associated with the site. It is more than 150,000 square feet and holds more than 4,000 artifacts, as well as provides excellent documentaries. It was certainly a highlight of our visit to Athens, “the Glorious City.” We then returned to our floating home for the final time on this adventure.

Wednesday, September 14 - Athens / Disembark Clipper Odyssey / Home: For those up early, there was a chance for last minute farewells and exchanges of addresses before heading home or setting off for other travel. We wished each other bon voyage and, as Lia says, “Let’s do it again tomorrow!”